Is the Internet of Things Causing the Total Breakdown of Society?

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Rob van Kranenburg is an author, editor, founder and consultant, with interest in creating a socially aware citizen-centric Internet of Things. His work spans many companies and organisations, most notably as Community Manager for Sociotal.eu, and Founder of IoT Council, a hub for debate, practice and implementation of and on the internet of Things.

Is the Internet and Internet of Things causing the total breakdown of society?

I want to argue yes. I am not a pessimist though and even very optimistic, as you will find, but for now just clear your mind and hear me out. I basically have three main arguments. They all concern data.

The first is about dynamic and differential pricing. Suppose you are reading this now with about twenty other readers, and suppose you want to book a flight to Barcelona. You will all pay a different price. This has been going on for quite some time now. I read nothing in the newspapers. I saw no news item on this. No one seems to mind. Yet do you know on which algorithms the prices that you get just for you are based? Which indicators are being used? And in the hands of which company is this decision capability located? Now we can deduct from earlier processes that the killer app of IoT in retail will be this: dynamic pricing on every item. No more fixed prices anywhere. In the supermarket you put your phone to any item and you get your price. Any service, any product will calculate its cost for you in real-time. Near you in under four years.

The second is about over the top (OTT) players like Über, AirBnB, Farmlogs, and operators like Google, Facebook, Amazon. Will Über repair the potholes in your roads? Will AirBnB build social housing? I don't think so. The added value on services used to be harvested in local systems that were supported by taxes of the population. In return we have services like sewage systems, roads, hospitals and schools. Will we still have them in say ten, twenty years? Our governments have had to cut, cut and cut for the past decades. Now all the potential surplus value is going directly to individual shareholders in OTT companies.

The third argument is more sociological. It is about the ability to determine data as data, to decide what is data in the first place.

That should be an open space with different voices chipping in. But unfortunately it never was really. So far it has been a succession of particular voices defining it fully, to the exclusion of other interpretations. We know this as the 'normal' and the 'not normal'. Whoever defines the 'normal' wins.

We can look at different phases in history and see that different type of intelligence was ruling. We have had the model of Kings, of dictators, of aristocracy, of soldiers, of farmers, and hunters. Let's break it down in the notion of tribes. The tribe, about 40 to 50 people, is generally seen as a kind of nuclear unit of human activity, decision-making and dreaming. The tribe always had scouts, the innovators that would go out and bring new stuff back. There were soldiers and Kings, servants and priests. And there were makers. They'd be silent usually. They would look solely at any problem at hand and start to make any situation more apt to the tune, more efficient. They would optimize reality. For them there was nothing outside of the immediate situation. Without fantasy, without potential of transposing they focused always fully on the real. And the real to them is too messy. By focusing on the gateways - the building blocks that connect - they managed to reduce complexity layer by layer, disambiguating everything that was born ambiguous and meant to stay that way.

Now it is very hard to claim that we ever had a good and balanced situation in which all intelligences would work together and make each other stronger, listen carefully to each other and become infected with and by each other. There never was a time like that. But I do not think there was ever a period in which the dominance of one particular intelligence and worldview has been so integral and encompassing.

In their 1949 book the Mathematical Theory of Communication Warren Weaver and Claude Shannon write: "The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.” In the basis that they laid for engineering and IT they removed meaning/semantics fully from the framework and scope of the technical builders.

Now we can see why they move so fast and are so pervasive. This worldview outsources anything that is really specific, idiosyncratic, messy, complex, not logical, read 'human' to other agencies that have to deal with that. Because it reduces everything in the world to simple forms of transmission between A and B, it has managed to become 'successful'. Claude Shannon had a box on his desk that contained nothing and had just one single switch on its side. You flip the switch, the box opens and a mechanical hand popped out, flipped the switch back and moved back inside. Shannon called this the Ultimate Machine.

"Such then, is the formidable fact of our times, described without any concealment of the brutality of its features." I always liked this line, written by Ortega Y Gasset in Revolt of the Masses. He was able to grasp the fundamental issue of his epoch in one single observation: Everything, he says, in the nineteen twenties, is full of people.

We can describe our epoch in one line as well. The full range of future scenario capabilities has been taking over by a single specific intelligence in the tribe; the engineer or the problem-solver. Because of this we risk the full erosion of solidarity and the full breakdown of society. As data is the gold of our epoch, it is the aggregation and accumulation of data that will foster new services. These new services will build on top of the older ones, creating more value for the Over The Top Players. The logical result is that citizens will stop paying taxes to national and supra-national entities that have no more steering capability of financial systems, on law (ineffective), on instruments (privatized) and on building cultural stability. Like the Berlin Wall came tumbling, the very notion of the democratic state will tumble and implode. At the current rate of development I give it five years.

One of the very reasons why this worldview that we all need to be optimal, efficient, rational, cut costs to minimum and happy to be able to measure ourselves and monitor our environment in real-time is so integral and strong is that the ones who front it are not marketers, they truly believe this to be the best of all possible worlds. In personal conversations with high-level developers of large Californian companies I have literally been accused of 'despising humanity' for the simple fact of questioning the omnipresence of certain companies in all aspects of individual human lives. At times I thought I was in the presence of a cult.

Now I must say that I do understand the vehemence of their arguments. Of course in a way Google is the best thing that happened to this planet. The ability to print books and make everybody literate was around in the 15th century, yet power stalled distributing these learning tools till the 20th century, as the first free public book lending in the UK is 1918. Imagine being a problem-solver in the reign of George III or Ludwig II of Bavaria. Or in today's Syria or the US that spends half of every tax dollar on the military. All of a sudden there is a global protocol, cheap data storage, cheap hardware, open source software, cheap analytics and everything is running on code, your code. Now you are in control. And you have never learned how to deal with that.

So people, here we are. We need a break. A time-out. We have possibilities. We can have a friendly time-out and start talking with a new global team of people on where to go from here. Everything open for discussion, with a focus on balanced and fair distribution of potential and talent development. The Internet and the Internet of Things can give us the best possible feedback on our health, the best possible resource allocation in or homes and streets and is our only chance against Climate Change. We can make it work as a very pragmatic cybernetics. But we have to make that work with a pool of intelligences in the driver-seat, a mix and multitude of voices.

We can also have a severe time-out. The Internet, in that case, was great for a while, but we need a new beginning. We break IP and start large intranets in zones of development like Europe, China, South-America. I think China has plans in that direction. In the EU we can build on top of the Estonian e-card. Your next passport will be a device, a smartphone that talks to only EU IoT platforms and acts as a smart controller of your devices. Privacy? Sure! But when people begin to realize that their new masters are large American companies that have no real interest in them, I think they will be open to new forms of organizing their decision-making. Their new smart device enables direct voting and much more local agency on decision-making.

You can learn more about the impact of IoT on the future of business and society at the upcoming RE.WORK Connect Summit in San Francisco on 12-13 November. Early Bird tickets end October 9, book now to save!

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This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of RE.WORK. As a result some opinions may even go against the views of RE.WORK but are posted in order to encourage debate and well-rounded knowledge sharing, and to allow alternate views to be presented to the RE.WORK community.

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